Rethinking emancipation means rethinking education

Schooling is the idea of education in which the aim of knowledge delivered is to give students access to the totality of the real; that is, the knowledge delivered through schooling represents what is real, even more real than what the students experience through their own lives, at least a more valuable reality (Ekerwald & Safstrom, 2015). Schooling presents a reality that is, by necessity, understood as hierarchically organized. That is, the real in schooling is built on a particular understanding both of time, and of progress and development.

The logic of time says that the child is not yet what they eventually will become, a fully developed member of the society in which they live. The child is educated for a future that is not yet. The logic of time can be formulated in concrete terms as the continuous installing of ‘not now, but later’ into all school practices, motivating everything, from the usefulness of knowledge, to when the child is to participate as a full member in society (Edling, 2009).

In this logic, the child is not yet the self-fulfilled accomplished grown-up. In schooling the teacher represents the self-fulfilled accomplished grown-up, in a total absolute sense, fixated by the way the institution itself works, and is as such also the fundamental measure for how to judge learning and development. The teacher is leading the not-yet-developed child in the successive stage-by-stage development of the child into fulfilment, and it is the role of the teacher to initiate the student into what is important and what is not, in understanding reality, as explored above with the help of Popkewitz (2008).

Except for the limitation of possible ways to live one’s life, as each stage implies, it also means that those stages are understood in terms of a lack, as something missing, which will be fulfilled by successive and later stages of development. The reality established through schooling, then, is firmly rooting the small child as the unfulfilled starting point for successive development into the accomplished grown-up, on a rising measurable scale, in which the measurement becomes more or less knowledgeable, developed, valued. In the hierarchy that is established as the reality, the student is directed to different “positions” with the accompanying amount of value, in which some ends up on the top, some at the bottom, and most in between (Langmann & Safstrom, 2018; Almquist, 2011).

The task of schooling, then, is to explain the world for new generations coming into it. But schooling and education are not the same thing. What I call schooling is precisely the idea of explaining reality as a hierarchical and unchangeable status quo so that nothing can happen that would disturb the social order of inequality. In such a reality, what becomes increasingly important is order as a discipline. It is therefore symptomatic that a liberal/conservative government in Sweden (2006—2015) saw disciplining children in and through the delivery of subject knowledge as the main reason for schooling. Knowledge, though, does not come without being understood in a particular context, and therefore is loaded with values, norms, principles of meaning concerning that context (Bernstein, 1983).

Therefore, discipline and order here mean that particular sets of knowledge are to be understood as reflected by a hierarchical reality, and maintained through the logic of “not now — but later” and “more or less”, a certain way of making the world rational and possible to control: discipline is designed to keep things in their proper place, to make people do what they are supposed to do within the hierarchical order, to learn, to progress, but never to question the basis for the order itself, which would be to question reality itself. To be included in this particular reality is to be disciplined, or schooled, to accept hierarchy and inequality as necessary, for one’s own life as well as everyone else’s in social life, because it mirrors the real itself. Teaching in such a context is for progress for oneself as well as society as a whole through the development of everyone’s progression. That is, through an increasing realization of one’s talents and abilities, one becomes part of the established reality'.

An unequal society is achieved under the banner of progressivism, according to Ranciere (1991, 1999). The idea that schooling is to contribute to the progress of society, becoming its driving force, is an example of such progressivism that is founded on inequality. This idea is what gives meaning to what I have been calling educational states and is, according to Ranciere, a (by-)product of modernity coming into play in society, and as I understand it, particularly coining into play through schooling.

The modem society was, among other things, an idea of the possibility of an organic society, based on inequality, but also one that was able to incorporate equality' as a limited possibility within its own totality as a hope for a better life (a hope that in itself is problematic, as I explored in chapter 1). It was a hope for equality' to come in the progression towards a promising future. It was a society whose ambition was to explain why inequality is necessary for the order of society (through naturalized and differentiated abilities and talents), and treated schooling as the mechanism that organizes such inequality (Ranciere, 1991).

The role of the teacher in schooling in a modern, capitalistic society is consequently one of leader or master, the one who teaches those who don’t know what the teacher already knows, and who will never know, because if they did know, the master would lose his or her position as master. Teaching itself becomes a process of reinstalling the hierarchical relation of inequality of master and pupil, and as such reflects the very order of social reality of inequality (Ranciere, 1991).

Teaching within the institutionalizing process of schooling is not even possible to be understood from within modernity as an exercise of power, but rather as a necessary ordering of the social, for a stable and progressive society to take shape against the backdrop of a natural order of the real. There is no room for ambiguity; ambiguity is rather that which must be wiped out at all costs, to be on the safe side of knowledge and control (Bauman, 1989, 2000, 2004). The technical measures used in schooling therefore always strive to be more and more exact in grading, dividing, identifying, sorting and administering the child. And evidence-based research promises to be exact in its predictions of the destiny of a child.

Comprehension of the world as completely and fully known is not only considered to be the realization of a person’s full potentiality, but is also considered as the very prerequisite of equality itself in the distributive paradigm of schooling. As such, it is only the master who can be equal to other masters, or in other words, to oneself. The master who is fulfilled, who has realized his or her full potential, can only be equal to someone who is equally fulfilled, selfrealized, in the know.

In other words, what tends to be established through the distributive paradigm of schooling is an idea of absolute sameness and perfect symmetry. Equality becomes conditioned on epistemological grounds rather than ethical, or political for that matter, and understood as more or less dependent on (social as well psychological) progression and developmental stages to be able to assemble knowledge. As a consequence, the only way equality can be understood in schooling is as an expression of sameness based on epistemological grounds. To be equal to the master, one has to become the master (who knows it all) oneself. There is no other that is not also inferior (in knowledge) or identical to oneself.

Schoolification is, as I understand it, an example of what Ranciere calls the pedagogical paradigm, and which I call the distributive paradigm of schooling that “translates to a general mode of society ordered by progress” (Ranciere, 2010, p.8). Within this paradigm, the master teacher reduces knowledge to stages according to the best methods known, and only to those who are unequal but, as such, fitting each stage, confinns inequality in the process and defers equality to a distant future (that may or may not come).

The above analysis explains why teachers interviewed in a project on the revision and use of syllabuses in a school, which I conducted some years ago and which focused on the conditions for grading in science education, explained to me that the highest grade in the subject was for those who planned and conducted their studies as a teacher (Safstrom, 2003b). The teacher as such was considered the ultimate point of reference. This also, paradoxically, was seen in the “ethical” plan formulated by the school for how to behave towards each other in school, which exclusively concerned relations between students. How the teachers were to behave ethically towards each other, as well as towards the students, was not part of the plan.

This suggests to me that the teachers in this study were to be understood as already being what the students were not yet: fully developed masters of society. The idea that the role model, the “master teacher” in Rancière’s (1991) words, was the perfected democratic citizen who students should live up to, ironically also tended to make what was actually taught in schools unimportant, since what really mattered for the students in such context was to be the same as the teacher, regardless of what was actually taught and regardless of how the students understood the content.

Emancipation cannot be based on knowledge alone, nor on an absolute authority reproducing itself as such in every act of teaching. Emancipation is only to be assumed and verified, by insisting on what Rancière (1991) calls the equality of intelligence, the shared ability of language.

To assume equality is to realize that it sets the condition for inequality, not the other way around; or rather, equality is chosen as that which is confirmed in any interactions with those involved: “To obey an order, one must understand that order, and one must understand that one must obey it. Thus a minimum of equality is necessary without which inequality would not make sense” (Rancière, 2010, p. 9). Equality is what is to be verified, and in the process inequality becomes clarified: in every context in which equality is assumed, it exposes the inherent inequality of that same context.

Whenever equality is confirmed, dissensus is introduced into the existing order since the normality of schoolification is, as demonstrated above, that only inequality can be confirmed, as it is measured against the master. Therefore to confirm equality of intelligence in a concrete situation of inequality means that the distributive paradigm of schooling is confronted by the provocation of the set order of things.

The result of this provocation is a possible dis-location of the production of sameness called for, and as this sameness is practised within the reality of a school. As such, it gives rise to what can be called the impossible possibility of emancipation in the face of the set order of things in the real: it verifies equality as already there despite the power of institutionalization, despite the power of socialization saying that things such as abilities and talents are naturally given and really beyond the possibility of learning, and necessarily unequally distributed over the social spectrum.

Rancière says that teachers, if they are not simply to stultify their students, must be able to separate between two different aspects of teaching: “It requires us to separate the ability to be, for another, the source of enacted equality, and the idea of a social institution charged with achieving equality'” (Rancière, 2010, p. 14).

That is, for teaching to be emancipatory has to be an enacted equality, in its very practice, not being understood as a process represented by the functioning of an institution, even if this institution promises to liberate the student at the end of learning. It means that education should never be confused with schooling within educational states, not even with the practice of delivering knowledge according to the best possible methods. Education is, as 1 understand it along with Ranciere, entirely about how to be equal in every concrete situation and every particular relation in a concrete school. Education is emancipatory to its core, and it is only people who can be emancipated, not the institution.

If emancipation cannot be guaranteed by schooling, there can be no educational programme serving the role of making society by the distributive paradigm of schooling in what I have called educational states. The making of society is for schooling to achieve, that is, schooling is a name for the institutionalization of “how the school and society symbolize each other without end, and thus endlessly reproduce the supposition of inequality, precisely by denying it” (Ranciere, 2010, p. 14).

Education works simply through another logic than schooling: education is conditioned by emancipation. Ranciere (2010) says, “all emancipation can promise is to teach people to be equal in a society ruled by inequality and by the institutions that ‘explain’ such inequality'” (p. 9).

Education is always an interruption of inequality of the logic through which the neglected child is attached to their place in the social machine. Educational research, if it is not only to oil the machine, needs to go against the ordinary course of events to divide various disciplining effects, to separate between “ways of being and ways of doing, seeing and speaking” (Ranciere, 2010, p. 15). It is to separate how the neglected child is attached to their place from how the child speaks, thinks and acts. It is to separate schooling as a managerial function of educational states from education as a confirmation of equality.

Concluding thoughts

Educational policies that present themselves as making the institutionalization of schooling more effective, competitive and knowledge-focused are, more often than not, motivated by the necessity of inequality in education and society for its progress. Against this, I have raised two arguments in this chapter. First, social structure in a democratic society is in itself ambiguous and open for negotiations along the lines of freedom and unfreedom, according to Laclau. Second, intellectual emancipation, which does not liberate the social order from its constraints, opens the possibility of equality between individuals and groups who, simply but not without danger, take the risk of its confirmation, who take the risk of educating themselves.

Such education is always in tension with the unequal but ambiguous social structure as represented by the larger reality of schooling. As Laclau points out, not only is there an internal relation between emancipation and conceptions of freedom, but freedom/unfreedom is an ever-present potentiality in all social structures and systems.

“No unfreedom” does not also have the potential to provoke freedom. In other words, there is no total system blocking the potentiality of freedom in every expression of unfreedom; that is, the distributive paradigm of schooling, despite its claustrophobic enclosure of the real, cannot exclude the potentiality of emancipation. And to the extent that emancipation and freedom show themselves, education is possible within systems of schooling, or structures of oppression.

What shows itself is a foundational relationality of education; in the words of Rancière, it is a relation between people, who can be emancipated, not relations of social structures. Education is therefore about the freedom of the other, despite its institutionalized constraints.

In chapter 3 I will extend the discussion on emancipation and equality by focusing on the tension between the reproduction of inequality and the necessary claims of equality, as they come close to how we are true to ourselves. I will also continue my exploration of teaching within educational thought.

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